It’s midnight.  I am lying in bed, talking to Tim.  It’s the only time we can talk alone now that the kids are home and awake way later than they should be.

“I’m worried about Howie,” he says. “It’s sometimes really hard to see him around so- called typical kids.”

He’s referring to a few incidents, but mostly to an afternoon before school ended.  Tim went in to volunteer in Howie’s class to help with a science project.  Howie had a major meltdown over an experiment and left the classroom to calm down.  Tim didn’t see him again until almost the end of the day.

“I know,” I said quietly.

“The older he gets, the more his ‘quirks’ are going to stand out.  I just want him to have friends.”

I nod silently in the dark.

“You saw that video of that bus monitor in New York, right?  Those are the kinds of kids that will target him.  Those are the kids who could hurt him.”

He’s not wrong, of course.  And I know that.

“I know,” I said. “But we’ll do what we can to keep him safe.  We’ll make sure he stays on the mini-bus as long as he can.  And we’ll have to teach him to tell us everything.  And then teach him again. And again.  And just hope it will be okay. But I know.  It scares me too.”

**********

On June 30th, my friend shared the link about the New York bus monitor’s story and posted this on her amazing Facebook page “We Care About Someone With Autism“:

I’m VERY sorry that this happened, and I’m happy to hear that the students who did this are being punished. But this whole thing REALLY bothers me. I mean, we hear about bullying every day….yet this person had $650,000 donated to her in order to take a VACATION?!?!?!? What about the thousands of Autistic children who get bullied in school or on the bus every day? Where’s their $$ to take a trip to Disney World? Understand — I REALLY am sorry that Karen Klein had to go through this — NO ONE should have that experience. But the public response (on that score) is TOTALLY misdirected.

I completely agree.  It is absolutely awful what Ms. Klein endured.  The children involved needed to be punished and I believe their suspension was appropriate and necessary.  No one – NO ONE – should go through the kind of abuse that she did.  But what happens when it’s kid versus kid?  Is there the same outrage? What about my kid who doesn’t understand that someone is verbally abusing him? Or what happens when my kid is the one who fights back and gets in trouble because he’s the one with the behavior plan?

What do I do?  As parents…what do we do?

**********

I’m in Dunkin’ Donuts, having an early morning meeting with a friend.  I take a sip of my coffee and look up at the TV screen.  CNN is on.  They are playing a video.  The sound is off, but the tag line at the bottom says “Video of 13-year-old autistic girl being bullied”.  I look away.  I search for it later and find this:

All the girls in this video are 13.  According to comments on the “Bully” movie Facebook page and a story from thAutcast.com, the video was taken by the girls perpetrating the attack.  The autistic girl’s mom put the video on YouTube to show the world what happened to her daughter, but then took it down when the girls involved received hate mail and death threats.  This copy of the video was left on YouTube.

This video just makes me cry. How do I keep this from happening to my child?

**********

It’s July 4th.  We’re on our way back from Target, getting some supplies for a holiday backyard party.  A CD of some of The Beatles Greatest Hits is playing.

I hear singing from the middle row of the mini-van.

I look in my rear view mirror.  Howie is singing:

Nothing you can make that can’t be made.
No one you can save that can’t be saved.
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time.
It’s easy.”

And then he gets louder:

All you need is love.
All you need is love.
All you need is love, love.
Love is all you need.”

He catches my eye – just for a second – in the mirror.  He looks away but smiles.  I smile back.

All you need is love (all together, now!)
All you need is love. (everybody!)
All you need is love, love.
Love is all you need (love is all you need)

I will tell him to be proud of who he is.

I must teach him to stand up for himself.

I will show him that love is more powerful than hate.

He already believes that love is all you need. 

I have to believe it’s enough.

Yesterday I received an e-mail from a young man that I’ve never met.

He contacted me through Facebook, and I wanted to share our conversation here.  To protect his privacy, I’m simply going to call him “Jay”.

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Jay:  I am Jay and I am 19..I have been looking for people on Facebook who know about Autism to chat with as I have Autism myself…it seems you know about Autism. Could we chat? My form of Autism is Asperger Syndrome.

Me: Hi Jay! Thanks for connecting. I’m no expert by any means – my son is 4 and he was diagnosed last Christmas. If you want to check out my blog at https://trydefyinggravity.wordpress.com/ I have a lot of links on there for good information, especially on Asperger’s.
It’s wonderful that you’re reaching out and I would love to talk more.

(yes, I know.  shameless plug, but I didn’t know the kid and didn’t know what he was looking for)

Jay:  I was 6 years old and in Kindergarten when I was diagnosed…I’ve always tried my best to overcome it by working hard and doing what I can to help others and be a good kid. I have been bullied a lot and made fun of for my condition. What do you think some affects can be of bullying on an emotional standpoint? If you were to see me or even your own kid bullied, what would you tell the kids it hurts or affects inside the victim?What emotions you know can be hurt by bullying?

Like what would you teach kids what bullying can hurt inside others

I am taking some online classes on counseling…so obviously stuff like this and your answers would help some.

Me:  I am so sorry for what you went through. No child should have to endure any amount of bullying. You sound like a very strong person.
I want to answer all your questions properly, but I have to put my kids to bed. I will write more tonight.

Me:  Ok, so here goes. I hope I answer all your questions.

I think bullying can have lifelong lasting effects. The fact that even now you remember what happened as a kid is evidence of that. And I think the effects can go one of three ways : 1) the child grows up to be an adult with lasting emotional scars and can’t recover, 2) the child grows up hating people, and could become a bully themselves, or 3) the child grows up to be an incredibly tolerant, sensitive and caring kid (which sounds like what you have become).

I’m in the camp of needing to step in when I see any kids being teased or bullied. I used to step back and wait for the kids’ parents to step in, but that doesn’t happen. Sometimes kids listen better when it’s not their parent talking to them. And sometimes the parents are the ones feeding their bullying tendencies (a vicious cycle). I think you hit on something when you ask about what emotions can be hurt. Instead of the broad “how would you feel if…” question, maybe the right question needs to be “if someone said that to you, would you feel happy? sad?” putting the emotion out there. i think it’s different for different age groups.

My hope is that someday kids won’t be bullied because they are a bit different. It might be me just being a hopeful parent, but because so many more kids are being diagnosed at an early age, the differences might not be so apparent. I’m also hopeful that schools will start to do a better job educating parents and kids about differences in learning styles, appearances, etc. so the differences become “normal”. I know they are doing that at my older kid’s school, and he has no clue which kids in his class are on IEPs or need extra help, because they treat every child as an individual there with individual needs.

I’ll say again how sorry I am for what you went through as a kid. It is every parent’s nightmare when you have a kid on the spectrum. I worry every day about my son – he’s smaller than most kids his age – and I know he won’t understand if someone is making fun of him or being playful. I will teach him right from wrong, and I hope someday he’ll be able to teach his peers the same thing.

Thanks for connecting. I hope that helps a little with your classes. You’ve helped me think a lot about the future and how to talk with my kids about how they are treated.

One more website to look at for good info for your classes: http://endthebullying.wordpress.com/. Great blog written by a mom of a child with autism.

Good luck and feel free to contact me again.

Jay:  The bullying really hurt my feelings, so in that, I’ve learned how important feelings are and that you need to get your feelings out, would you agree? I’ve read a lot of kids have trouble expressing their feelings…so I guess am lucky to get my feelings out. How important do you think feelings are in life and do you take feelings very seriously?
A lot of kids who hurt my feelings and knew they were said they were glad my feelings were hurt and didn’t care about feelings at all and that feelings don’t mean anything. Just hearing this, does it hurt your own feelings?

I think feelings is a great subject to talk about and kind of underated. My family has made a commitment to feelings for years. We have lots of books on feelings that we read. That helped me through the bullying, getting the feelings out, reading about hurt feelings and how to get better from them

I’d love if you can for me, sit down with your child, and have a talk about feelings. help learn about feelings and how important the feelings are and let me know how it goes, can you do that for me please?

Me: (in tears as I write him back): You are wise beyond your years, and it sounds like you have wonderful parents. Those kids didn’t deserve to be anywhere near you.

And yes, for you and for my kids, feelings will be the optic of tonight’s dinner conversation. On behalf of my family, thank you.

would you mind if I wrote about our conversation here? I won’t use your name, but your message is powerful and I’d like to share it. It’s ok if you say no.

Jay:  Yes you can, no problem at all.

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Now, I don’t know who Jay is, and some of you might think  he was making this all up and playing me.  My sense is that he’s not.  I feel like he was just a young man reaching out to someone who might understand him.  I do.  It doesn’t matter though.  His message is what’s important.  His story is what every parent worries about.

He’s right that a lot of kids on the spectrum have a hard time sharing their feelings appropriately.  They have difficulty showing empathy – something we struggle with every day in our house.  But it doesn’t mean that our kids don’t feel.  In many ways, I think they feel even more deeply than the rest of us.  They just can’t express it.

So, for Jay, tonight we’re going to talk about feelings at dinner.  I’ll talk about it different ways with each of my kids.  With Gerry, we can talk about what it feels like when someone doesn’t want to play the same game as he does at recess.  With Howie, I can ask him how it feels when he doesn’t see his favorite activity out at center time.  And with Lewis, even though he’s not quite two, I can still ask him to smile and show me “happy”.  And we can all make that happy face at the table together.

In honor of Spirit Day today, I’m hoping you do the same with your family.  Culture changes have to start at home, with us as parents.  Let’s talk to our children about their feelings, and teach them how to treat others with respect and tolerance, even if they are just a little different. Because we all want our kids to share like Jay did with me.

“Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out
Hey yeah, I’ll stand my ground
And I won’t back down

Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out
Hey yeah, I’ll stand my ground
And I won’t back down” – I Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty